Soyfoods provide consumers with an array of culinary choices chock full of protein and flavor.
Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. Fermentation breaks down the proteins in the soybean, making it easier to digest than whole soybeans. Natto is often eaten for breakfast and is popular in Japan for its health benefits. Natto soybeans are small, with a clear hilum and thin seed coat.
Natto’s popularity has created a surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to a recent observational BMJ study that shows fermented soy products may reduce the risk of premature death, natto and other soyfoods are a source of high-quality protein, making them a good choice during uncertain times such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to an official from the Japan Natto Cooperative Society Federation, shipments of natto in Japan were 10% to 15% higher in early April than in the same period last year. Fermenting rooms, which hold soybeans for about 14 to 15 hours for fermentation, have been at 100% capacity since February, the official said, adding that the figure is normally 80% to 90%.
“No matter how great the demand for natto is, we cannot produce more than the fermenting rooms’ capacity,” explains Yoshihiro Noro, president of Noro Shokuhin and the chairman of Japan Natto Cooperative Society Federation. Increasing the capacity of fermenting rooms would necessitate costly construction and equipment. “I suspect makers are operating at their highest efficiency. Increasing capacity would mean constructing new buildings.”
“People who normally buy one pack of natto now buy two or three,” he adds.
“The situation in the industry has not changed, and we have never experienced this unusual busiest time before,” Noro told the U.S. Soybean Export Council’s (USSEC) Japan office on May 6. “It seems that the company has grown a little as [we] had been through the natto panic and the earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011. However, of course, everyone is overworking. I am a little worried after [Japan’s] declaration of emergency [due to the pandemic].”
While concerned by the shortage caused by natto’s surging popularity, Noro hopes the boom is more than a passing phase.
Japan imports about 75 percent of its annual natto-soybean needs from the United States. Increased natto demand may ultimately result in increased demand for U.S. Soy.
“The Japanese IP food soybean market has long been important to not only my company, but to the entire U.S. food soybean industry,” says Todd Sinner, Vice President at SB&B in Casselton, North Dakota. His company, a USSEC member, is a large scale, family-owned and operated agribusiness that has delivered traceable IP food ingredients to customers worldwide for more than 30 years. “With its well-recognized health benefits, natto is a staple food for consumers in Japan, which is why the demand has risen so sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are committed to meeting the increased demand of high quality and safe natto soybeans grown here in the United States and will continue for years to come.”
USSEC Japan reports that the Japanese natto industry used about 148,000 metric tons (MT) of identity preserved (IP) soy, of which the U.S. supplied more than 70% in 2018. The natto market reached a record high, $2.503 billion USD in 2019, up 48% from 2013. It is estimated that in April 2020 alone, Japan’s natto market reached approximately 1,350 MT or $1,080,000 in increased export value due to this increased demand. This market is expected to further grow with breakthrough marketing plans and sustainable raw material.
“The Japanese natto industry appreciates that the U.S. soy industry continues to supply not only safe and sustainable soybeans,” says Masako Tateishi, USSEC Director of Human Utilization in North Asia and Japan, “but also supports funding for this traditional food industry, creating a win-win situation for both partners.”
 Figures provided by Japan Natto Cooperative Federation.
 Figures calculated by USSEC with data provided by Japan Natto Cooperative Federation and U.S. export industry.